EDINBURG — With her squad trailing late in the third set of a key district game, Edinburg Vela’s Glenys Maldonado emerged from the team huddle after a timeout looking determined to leave her mark on the match.
The SaberCats had already embarked on a long comeback bid in the set, erasing a seven-point lead to claw back to a 20-19 deficit. That’s when Maldonado took charge.
She notched two straight kills on vicious spikes to tie it up at 21-all and tallied the final two kills of the match — one on a perfectly placed tip, the other on a hit hugging the sideline in the middle of the defense — that cemented Vela’s wild come-from-behind set winner over Weslaco High as part of a 25-10, 25-21, 25-21 victory Saturday afternoon.
“We really pushed. I’m just really excited for the season, especially this win because last year they were our main competition,” Maldonado said. “So the fact that we got them in three in the first round (of district games), I think that’s really exciting. I’m just so excited.”
The SaberCats started out on a roll in the first set. Maldonado notched two of the first three points to help her team jump out to an early advantage.
Aided by some stellar defensive play in the back row and struggles by the Panthers to consistently place serves over the net, Vela never looked back and cruised to a double-digit opening-set win.
But Weslaco High came out to start the second looking like a much different team.
Maldonado was the key for Vela again at the start of the second set, scoring three of the team’s first four points to start. The Panthers hung with the SaberCats at the outset, though, and knotted the set up at 4-4.
“We either relaxed or started just making errors, and they actually just came up and started making some big plays on their end,” Vela head coach Aracelli Ortega said. “I know they struggled in that first set, but we had to take advantage where we could because we knew this team was one that could come back and beat us good.”
Vela began to pull away, but could never build much of a lead as Weslaco looked to be a re-invigorated group. The Panthers started tipping toward the cracks in the SaberCats’ defense with great success and used it as a big energy boost to help jolt them back into the contest.
After several mini runs by Vela, Weslaco trimmed the lead to 23-20 — right before Maldonado hammered home the final two points to stave off a ferocious comeback bid thanks in large part to a phenomenal team defensive effort to prolong points into long volleys that ultimately went the SaberCats’ way.
“I think we started recognizing where their hitters were aiming and we had to make those adjustments just stepping it up against them,” Ortega said. “They were trying to put it where we weren’t and we were having to make adjustments so that they wouldn’t catch us there at the end.”
The third set appeared destined to go to the Panthers from the first serve. After trading points at the beginning, Weslaco jumped out to a quick 9-5 lead which quickly ballooned to a 13-6 advantage.
Katia Reyes, Blaine Brunnemann and Aracelly Moreno really supercharged the Panthers offensively, combining 15 kills on the day between them.
The SaberCats seemed to be reeling trying to stop a pumped up Weslaco team. Vela capitalized on a few mistakes to fight back to a 15-12 deficit before Ortega signaled for a timeout.
“Actually in that one timeout there at the end, we talked about that,” Ortega said. “The crowd was a little quiet and we needed to stir it up a little bit. I think the girls did a good job of doing that because it kind of woke the stands up a little bit. I think it pumped the girls back up to push through.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. The SaberCats came out of the break fired up, which in turn got the home crowd into it enough to become a real factor down the stretch run.
Maldonado was excellent again when it counted, both offensively and defensively. In addition to scoring timely points throughout the game, she continually saved points with clutch digs and put her teammates in positions to contribute with well-placed sets.
“Glenys is just that type of player who when the going gets tough, it energizes her,” Ortega said. “The girls know if they need to count her that she’s a person that will lead the way. Defensively she had to turn it up a notch and I think it helped us because then we were able to see her in the front row and the back row when we needed the ball to be put down.”
Maldonado would finish the match with a team-high 19 kills to go along with 12 digs. She also tallied her 1,000th career dig in the game — one week after registering her 1,000th kill — solidifying her spots as one of the best two-way players in the Valley.
The star outside hitter also got a lot of help from setter Gabby Avila, libero Becca Cavazos and middle blocker Izabella Rodriguez. Avila and Cavazos combined for 24 digs, with Avila adding 19 assists.
Rodriguez played extremely well along the net, notching seven kills and a pair of consequential blocks toward the end of the match.
“We just have a lot of passion honestly. We have a lot of heart in everything we do, especially as a team,” Maldonado said. “There isn’t much selfishness on our team; we’re very unselfish and we know what we have to do. We do whatever we have to do to get the point, even if it’s setting up other teammates or something like that. We’re real unselfish and we play as a team.”
The SaberCats (22-10), who now sit at 3-0 in district play, will return to action to face Donna North at noon Saturday in Donna, having an open date Tuesday. The Panthers will return to the court at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to take on Donna North at home.